Fay Maschler once described Jackson Boxer as a ‘benign Svengali,’ and Boxer was at his soulful, shepherding best in his Guardian think piece this past Sunday.
Boxer is far from the first disaffected owner to grieve for lost business after a rash of no shows, but his cry for help could be the rallying cry the industry desperately needs.
Sentiment amongst operators has quickly turned nuclear – punish perpetrators and assign guilt to all by association in the form of deposits. Clove Club (in)famously decided to go a step further in 2015, selling ‘tickets’ for their set menu, payable in advance; non-transferable and immobile. Stateside, many fine dining establishments manage bookings in the same manner, and it is increasingly acceptable to ask guests to confirm large table reservations with down payments.
Advocates can rightly point to food delivery as a fair comparison – you pay for your meal before anyone ever starts cooking – or to other, experiential formats, like festivals, theatres and cinemas. Why shouldn’t restaurants charge for the table they have reserved, the staff they have rostered and the food they have ordered, even if the guest decides to renege on the commitment?
Why people no show
Evidently, it is far more convenient to book a table than it is to attend the actual reservation.
Anyone can reserve a table in a couple of clicks, but the gulf between booking and dining is cluttered with rivaling offers and opportunities. Temptation now meets visibility as competitors lurk in your guests back pockets, just a nudge away from stealing attention. And competitors range far beyond bricks & mortar restaurants.
Booking engines sell inspiration, not experiences. This distinction demands they lock guests into reservations, however casual the intent, and distances guests from any personal attachment. It’s far easier to deny a faceless corporation than it is a local business owner.
What you can do about it
We’ll skip the basics. Waitlists; ‘day of’ phone calls; dedicated booking teams; deposits on large table bookings. You get it. Let’s dig deeper.
Bookings don’t confirm attendance, but they do commit us to an occasion. And, once committed, we are that much more likely to complete the transaction. Even just saying ‘yes’ to a question has a transformative effect on conversion rates.
Extending this commitment is the simplest way to limit a no show. The more people we make a vow to, the less likely we are to default. Help guests to share their booking with their friends and guests, or even to strangers on social media; it all helps.
We’re also more likely to comply with people that match our principles. So, share your values, write like a human being, tell your guests what you stand for and how they can support the causes you do.
Non-attendance is not the enemy; it’s the lapse in communication that costs you money. Make the cancellation process straightforward. And, for all that this sounds counterintuitive, make sure guests feel comfortable cancelling.
Consumer-facing, offline industries have long struggled to transfer audience data into action. Today, software abounds to help close the gap. Find out which channel is most likely to cause a no show and which days and services are most at risk. Find out, and act on it.
Hotels and airlines are both entirely dependent on bookings, and both regularly overbook. Overbooking might seem inhospitable but, when matched to reliable demand data and a front of house team able to deal with a challenge, can optimise inventory. Stay active on social and reputational channels, and keep your website up to date. Diners will still be validating their decision until the last minute; don’t give them an excuse to wander.
If nothing else, reinforce positive behaviour: Incentivise off-peak bookings, reward return guests, and send communication tailored to your most regular guests. Fill your dining room with people that love what you do.
A note on deposits
Deposits will limit bookings and they won’t stop no shows altogether. If you do decide to impose this obstacle, explain the rationale to your guests. They’ll appreciate it, particularly if you’re asking them to change their behaviour to suit you.
Customers will occasionally miss their lunch and dinner and feel anxious and embarrassed when they do. Reach out to them. Don’t exchange a loyal guest for the sum of a deposit. The levy can be flexible, too. A skipped meal on a Monday may affect your business less than on a Friday. Pass this onto the consumer; make the punishment fit the crime.
Even if 36% of your bookings don’t convert – as was the case at Brunswick House on Mother’s Day – reservations represent an incredibly effective tool in the sales cycle, unmatched by any other everyday process.
Just as Jackson Boxer declared himself a ‘hopeless optimist,’ have faith in your customers to care, communicate and commit to their bookings.